The US media seems to regularly go through periods of hysteria when one particular crime grabs their imagination and suddenly they see widespread evidence of it everywhere. There have been many notorious cases where innocent people were wrongfully prosecuted and convicted for crimes committed by others. But what is even worse is doing so when there was no crime in the first place. This was the case during the period that some of you may remember from a few decades ago when it seemed like there was an epidemic of cases involving children’s day care centers that seemed to be hotbeds of all manner of abuse. It seemed like we saw a parade of day care providers being hauled off in handcuffs and sent to prison.
Many of the accusations of abuse were so horrific and involved the collusion by many adults to commit and hide the acts that they strained credulity. Many of the cases involved the testimony provided by very young children and it seemed plausible to many that children would have no reason to lie. It later emerged that in some cases, over-zealous prosecutors and psychologists were inducing false memories in the children.
Jordan Smith writes about one couple’s case that she investigated who were exonerated 25 years after being convicted.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS after they were convicted of a crime that never happened, Fran and Dan Keller were formally exonerated on June 20 in Austin, Texas.
The couple’s prosecution in 1992 was part of a wave of cases across the country amid an episode of mass hysteria known as the Satanic Panic. Beginning in the 1980s, accusations flew that the childcare industry had been infiltrated by bands of Satanists hell-bent on brainwashing and sexually abusing young children.
Fran and Dan Keller were each sentenced to 48 years in prison for the alleged sexual assault of a 3-year-old girl who was an occasional drop-in at their home daycare center on the rural outskirts of Austin. The child initially accused Dan of spanking her “like daddy” used to, but under intense and repeated questioning by her mother and a therapist, the story morphed to include claims of rape and orgies involving children. From there, the number of children alleging abuse increased and the accusations grew even more lurid and confounding: The Kellers had sacrificed babies; they held ceremonies in a local graveyard; they put blood in the children’s Kool-Aid; Fran cut off the arm of a gorilla in a local park; they flew the children to Mexico to be sexually assaulted by military officials.
Smith recounts how her reinvestigation of the case led to the exoneration and how the Austin police department refused to release the investigative report on the case until they were taken to court and ordered to do so.
After reading the report, it was not hard to understand why the department had fought to keep it secret. It was an ALL-CAPS, run-on-sentence fever dream full of breathless accusations and absent any actual investigation that could prove or disprove the claims. On multiple occasions, the lead investigator took the girl who accused the Kellers to lunch at McDonald’s before setting out for drives in the neighborhood where she would point out locations: Yes, she had been abused there; yes, she recognized the cemetery where the Kellers had killed and buried babies; yes, many of the residents of the quiet neighborhood were in on the hi-jinx. Not once did investigators question the child’s statements.
Unless you lived through that period, it is hard to describe the mass hysteria that seemed to sweep over the nation about the widespread abuse of children by day care providers. As a result, there was huge pressure on police and prosecutors to take action to find and punish the perpetrators of what seemed like horrendous crimes and for some people in the judicial system, it seemed like getting convictions took precedence over finding out the truth. Many of those day care providers’ lives were completely ruined. What is worse is that it also likely scarred for life the children involved as well and made prosecution of actual cases of abuse harder to distinguish and prosecute from those that were the result of over-zealous police and prosecutors.
If there is any lesson to be learned from this awful period, it is that it is at times of mass fear and hysteria that we need to be especially careful of not being stampeded into taking intemperate actions, as happened with the war on terror following 9/11 and with the war on drugs.